One of the few advances enabled by the pandemic is the rising comfort level with online communications, even when pursuing health care, among many people who never would have considered such an option previously.
While the world still battles the coronavirus, what’s been dubbed telehealth, or telemedicine, offers advantages of safety for patients making appointments that don’t require a doctor’s physical presence. And looking beyond the COVID-19 era, the technology offers long-term help to these patients in securing care, even if the provider is many miles away.
It’s a platform for communication and data-sharing that, while certainly not new, got a strong push during lockdown. How exactly it will figure into health coverage for the future will take time to map out, but local applications have an immediate boost from federal funds allowing for crucial safety-net support where it’s needed.
Hawaii’s Department of Health (DOH) is taking an important first step in further developing telehealth as an asset to underserved areas, including remote and rural regions. The project is tapping $3.7 million in federal pandemic relief funds to equip 15 public libraries as centers for telehealth visits.
The implementation will be the work of the DOH in partnership with the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Pacific Basin Telehealth Resource Center (www.pbtrc.org) and the Hawaii State Public Library System. The facilities will offer private rooms and computers for online appointments. For those with home equipment but inadequate connectivity, hotspot units will be available for loan, too.
Centers are scheduled to be up and running by the end of the year. And, starting in 2022, mobile clinic vans, positioned in library parking lots and deployable to neighborhoods for home-bound patients, will provide medical attention in person as well as via telehealth.
The state must work to stay on top of this timeline, because so many patients have found consistent preventive health care so elusive. This could make access more routine.
The participating libraries were strategically selected: Lanai, Molokai, Hana, Kihei, Waimea, Princeville, Hanapepe, Pahoa, North Kohala, Hilo, Waianae, Kahuku, Waimanalo, Wahiawa and Waipahu.
An added bonus: High school and college students will be trained to work as health and digital navigators, guiding the patients in their “televisits” and teaching computerized searches for information on COVID-19 and other health issues.
All of this represents a welcome effort to expand people’s ability and willingness to use tools that could make the process easier. Some of these communities will benefit from a program that, for example, can make introductory sessions available in various languages.
Health officials here must track the use of these centers, noting how effectively they increase the number of people getting health screening and other preventive care that are proven ways of improving health outcomes and reducing costs. That will guide policymakers in building on this pilot project.
This year, lawmakers enacted Senate Bill 970, clarifying the law enabling doctor-patient relationships to be established through telehealth. Similar steps taken across the country are giving telehealth recognition as a means of health-care delivery that health insurance will encompass.
The challenge will be striking a balance so that remote encounters don’t displace the face-to-face exchanges that are essential to good medical treatment. At this stage, however, properly executed telehealth services are a plus for many people who could certainly use such an assist right now.